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Changing migrants’ mindsets can improve their intercultural experiences

 “After all those years dreaming of America, I hated it…. I couldn’t understand anything. I didn’t talk. I was afraid someone would laugh at my pronunciation. And they did make fun of me. I thought to myself, I was a good student in Korea. Here I am stupid…. Finally I realized I had to reach out. To be a better speaker I had to be active and overcome my fear.”

— Clara, a seventeen-year-old girl

From “The Colors of Freedom: Immigrant Stories” by Bode (1999)

For many immigrants, Clara’s experience depicts their difficulties associated with learning a second language. Immigrants who are not fluent in the local language not only have trouble communicating, but may also feel that they don’t fit into the society in which they live, or that majority members might reject them due to their lack of fluency. Such fear of rejection can cause people from minority groups to experience negative interethnic relations and maladaptive adjustment to the mainstream society.

Despite these obstacles, as we can also see from Clara’s story, it is possible to overcome the fear of using a new language. Why is this the case and how can we help immigrants to “reach out” and overcome their fears? Addressing immigrants’ mindsets about language learning might be one answer. There are two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset is the belief that one’s level of language aptitude is not changeable; a growth mindset is the belief that language aptitude can be improved with enough practice. Everyone probably believes both of these claims, to some extent; some may have more fixed than growth mindsets, some may have more growth than fixed mindsets. According to a recent study, a fixed mindset is linked with possessing a fear of rejection. This relation exists because those who hold a strong fixed mindset believe they can do little to change their poor language skills, and therefore they feel that rejections by native speakers are inevitable and detrimental. Those who hold a growth mindset, rather, believe that they can better their language aptitude, and see challenges as potential opportunities for growth.

Since immigrants can be convinced to hold one mindset over another, depending on what they are exposed to, it follows that by emphasizing a growth mindset, teachers and other people who work with immigrants can help immigrants to experience less fear of rejection.

Moreover, researchers found that migrant students could be primed to hold either a fixed or growth mindset, which then influenced how much they expected rejection from native language speakers. Those migrant students who read an article that supported growth mindsets, compared to those who read an article that supported fixed mindsets, experienced less fear of rejection, which resulted in greater confidence to interact with locals and to adapt to the new society. These results have important implications for overcoming fears of using a new language. Since immigrants can be convinced to hold one mindset over another, depending on what they are exposed to, it follows that by emphasizing a growth mindset, teachers and other people who work with immigrants can help immigrants to experience less fear of rejection. This kind of feedback could thereby help migrants’ adaptation.

Think back to Clara’s experience from the beginning. Initially, Clara possessed a fixed mindset and believed that she was “stupid” because of her lack of English fluency. Eventually, she realized that, by adopting a different mindset, she could better this situation. The results of this study show that such change in mindsets, by adopting the notion that language-learning ability is improvable, can motivate new immigrants to engage actively in the new language in the new society. Settlement programmes and ESL teachers, should, therefore, attempt to promote the importance of possessing growth mindsets to new immigrants.

Featured image credit: ‘Luggage’ by  Rene Böhmer. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.

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